Think Small. Carl Hahn, The Legendary VW Executive, Dies at 96

Dr. Carl Hahn, a lifelong Volkswagen mover and shaker, transformed the people-car company.  He was VWoA’s president from 1959 to 1965.  During his U.S. tenure, Hahn played an important role in establishing the VW Beetle as an American icon through deft marketing.  Furthermore, he expanded VWoA’s number of employees, modernized its operations and cultivated dealer relationships.  

Hahn understood the brand’s U.S. dealers needed nationwide advertising.  But he was “terribly disappointed” with American advertising executives until he met the “honest”  folks at Doyle, Dane and Bernbach.  Honesty rather than Madison Avenue puffery suited Hahn’s sensibilities. Hahn banned glamorous drawings or paintings of VW’s cars.  VW even ran an ad without a photograph because VW didn’t have anything new to show.

Hahn, who became CEO at VW’s German headquarters in 1982, expanded the company’s depth.  Prior to 1982, he championed the acquisition of Audi and let that brand have its own identity.  He’d guided VW into further breadth by acquiring Skoda and Seat.  He spearheaded VW’s Chinese ventures. 

One thing he didn’t like was the American-made VW Rabbit.  He fired VWoA president James McLernon, a former Chevrolet engineer, recruited to get VW’s Westmoreland plant running.  The Rabbit’s replacement, the 1985 Golf, although produced in the States, recaptured the brand’s Teutonic flare, but not a large market share.  Hahn says one of his biggest regrets was the slide in VW’s U.S. sales.

There was a time when Americans dubbed Hahn “Mr.Volkswagen;” he was a key part of the Beetle’s success story.  Others say Hahn was a member of Generation Golf.  His emphasis on the Golf helped VW strengthen its European-market sales.  He also steered VW toward further globalization with a portfolio of front-drive vehicles.